The Virginia Folklife Program returns to the Richmond Folk Festival! On Saturday, October 8 and Sunday, October 9, visit the Folklife Area to see demonstrations by apprentices from the 2019-2020 and 2021-2022 class years—including several instrument makers and repairers. Enjoy a photo exhibit honoring the twentieth anniversary of the Apprenticeship Program and visit the stage for traditional music from Virginia and beyond presented by the Center for Cultural Vibrancy.

Virginia Folklife Area

Here’s a list of artists we’ll be bringing to the Virginia Folklife Area at the Richmond Folk Festival. Here’s a list of artists the Center for Cultural Vibrancy is bringing to the stage.

Brently Hilliard

Fiberglass Sculpture | Richmond, VA

Pat Jarrett/Virginia Humanities

Brently Hilliard is a musician and sculptor working in Richmond. Hilliard mostly makes small-scale, short-run cast resin toys and action figures inspired by B-grade horror movies and so-called “gross out” cartoons like The Ren & Stimpy Show. MadBalls, sculpted foam ball toys with names like Bash Brain (a zombie with exposed brains) and Slobulus (a one-eyed slobbering creature), are another source of inspiration for Hilliard. In 2019-2020, he received support from the Virginia Folklife Program to apprentice with Mark Cline of Natural Bridge, Virginia. While Cline is known for large-scale roadside attractions like Dinosaur Kingdom II and Foamhenge, he began sculpting by casting small resin figures. Though their time was cut short because of the pandemic, Hilliard said they stay in touch and Cline has helped Hilliard when he needs advice on process. Some notable Hilliard creations make nods to the musician Captain Beefheart, Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice and a Benji Hughes lyric. He said making these figures is therapeutic to some extent, “if I couldn’t make things I’d be in rough shape.” Hililard will be sharing work in the Virginia Folklife Area Saturday and Sunday. 

Chris Testerman

Instrument Making | Independence, VA

Chris Testerman

Chris Testerman of Independence, Virginia was raised in the traditions of instrument making and Appalachian music. He attended Mount Rogers Combined School in Grayson County and played in the Albert Hash Memorial Band, led by Whitetop Mountain Band banjo player Emily Spencer, as a teenager. The late Albert Hash, born in Whitetop in 1917, mentored some of the greatest luthiers and instrument makers in Southwest Virginia, including Gerald Anderson, Randal Eller, Walter Messick, and Wayne Henderson. Albert Hash’s daughter Audrey Hash Ham used to run the Old Time Music Program at the school. When he decided to pursue instrument making, following the encouragement of his teachers and bandmates, Testerman sought Ham’s instruction. He shared that the first time he inquired about a fiddle in her workshop, she handed him a block of wood, some sandpaper, and a pocket knife, telling him: “Carve away anything that does not look like a fiddle.” He worked that piece of wood for a year until he had something to show her. She noticed his hard work, and soon he was learning at her side. They were friends for years after that, and to this day Testerman uses custom tools crafted by Hash in his shop, willed to him after Ham’s passing in 2013. 

Testerman makes instruments in the spirit of his predecessors—fine musical instruments with clear tone and unique adornments. The influence from the Hash family can be seen in the animal head scrolls carved on many of his fiddles, inspired by the natural beauty of Grayson County and the mountains of the region. “Through the music, I have met lots of interesting people and traveled all over the world. I see the importance it plays in the community in bringing people together,” he shared. With the support of the Virginia Folklife Program. Testerman apprenticed with master dulcimer maker Walter Messick in 2012-2013 and in 2021-2022, Testerman became the teacher, training apprentices Karlie Keepfer and Sophia Burnett in making their first instruments. Testerman will be in the Instrument Makers Workshop in the Virginia Folklife Area on Saturday and Sunday and playing in the Instrument Makers Jam on the Center for Cultural Vibrancy Virginia Folklife Stage on Sunday. 

Daniel Smith

Violin Making and Repair | Lynchburg, VA

Danny Smith
Pat Jarrett/Virginia Humanities

Daniel Smith of Lynchburg, Virginia found his way into becoming a luthier while he was working full time for the local fire department. It was discovering Cajun music while serving in the Army in Germany during the Vietnam War that led Smith into a love for old time music—and especially the fiddle. When he saw Dolly Parton play a guitar made by a friend of his, Donald Watts, on television he became interested in instrument repair. In addition to being a luthier, Watts was known locally for hosting Porter Wagner and Dolly Parton’s tour bus on his land in Monroe. He taught Smith some foundational skills and also introduced Smith to Russell Burford, his nephew. The two became fast friends and went on to build fifteen instruments together. Skilled hand work came naturally to Smith, something he attributes to his father, who was a machinist. He explains his dedication to the work by extolling its benefits, saying, If you do something with your hands and mind together, it is a good antidote for the misery of the world.” When Burford passed away, his family bestowed his tools to Smith, who soon began to build and repair violins full time following an early retirement from the Lynchburg Fire Department. While Smith received his initial training from Watts and Burford, he continued to advance his skills to an expert level on his own, through his repair practice, examining the instruments he encountered, and studying photos of historic violins. He has built 75 violins, repaired hundreds of instruments, and is currently building  his second cello. Smith trained violin builder and restorer Richard Maxham, and the two are receiving support from the Virginia Folklife Program in 2022-2023 to continue their apprenticeship—though as Smith puts it, “the teacher has become the student!” Smith will be in the Instrument Makers Workshop in the Virginia Folklife Area on Saturday and Sunday.

Dr. Dena Jennings

Gourd Instrument Making | Nasons, VA

Dena Jennings, courtesy of the artist.

Dena Jennings is a physician and artist in Central Virginia. She was born in Akron, Ohio during its booming years of ingenuity as the rubber capital of the world. Her father was an executive at Goodyear International; her mother, a banker at a hometown savings and loan. On her mother’s side, Jennings can trace her ancestry in Appalachia back five generations. Twenty years after establishing her medical practice and ImaniWorks, a non-profit organization for conflict transformation and human rights advocacy, Jennings moved to Ontario, Canada, where she entered a four-year arts apprenticeship. There, she learned to hand carve modern instruments made from gourds and other natural fibers in the style of traditional instruments from around the world. At the end of her apprenticeship, she opened a workshop, studio, and retail music store in a small town in Central Ontario. 

Upon meeting her husband who had developed an herb farm and retreat center in Central Virginia, she relocated the workshop and studio where she could grow her own gourds and mill her own wood. She re-opened her practice in Orange and its waiting room is a gallery for her sculpted instruments and a listening room for Appalachian and Black American roots music. Through ImaniWorks, Jennings conducts instrument building workshops, conflict transformation retreats, and hosts the Affrolachian On-Time Music Gathering at the farm. She also makes sculptures and performs Appalachian and folk Bengali music on gourd instruments. Jennings is the Vice Chair of the Virginia Commission for the Arts, and she has served as a commissioner since 2019. As she explains, she “endeavors to build the Beloved Community through my devotion to music, culture, and social justice.” 

Karlie Keepfer

Instrument Making | Sparta, NC

Karlie Keeper
Pat Jarrett/Virginia Humanities

Seventeen-year-old Karlie Keepfer from Alleghany County, North Carolina, has been described as an old soul by many, so it’s no surprise she became an enthusiastic student and, later on, an instructor of traditional Appalachian music through the AJAM (Alleghany Junior Appalachian Musicians) program. Keepfer sings and plays clawhammer banjo with her band, Karlie Keepfer and Smokey Holler. One of Keepfer’s favorite pastimes is frequenting the many fiddler’s conventions of Southwest Virginia and northwestern North Carolina where she—more often than not—walks away with blue ribbons in folk song, banjo, and dance.  While she enjoys the accolades, the thing she enjoys most about these gatherings is the camaraderie of fellow musicians and friends she has met along the way. In 2021-22, Karlie worked closely with her mentor and master luthier, Chris Testerman of Independence. Under his guidance and with the support of the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program, she built her first banjo. Upon graduating high school in 2023, Karlie plans to obtain a degree in construction engineering. She hopes to keep traditional music as an integral part of her life. 

KT Vandyke

Instrument Making | Bristol, VA

KT Vandyke courtesy of the artist

After working on the road as a sound engineer for the bluegrass fiddler Michael Cleveland, KT Vandyke found himself back in Southwest Virginia, doing instrument repair and setup at Front Row Music in Abingdon. It’s there where he met Walter “Skip” Herman of the nearby Frog Level Guitar Shop. Herman had learned the luthier trade from “Uncle” Dave Sturgill in Piney Creek, North Carolina, and decided to pursue repair full-time once he saw the reliable demand for, and importance of, the work. As Herman explains, “You can make the very best instrument in the world and if there is no-one out there to repair it, it’s like having a Ferrari where there’s no mechanic in the world who can fix it.”

Herman and Vandyke became friends and soon Vandyke was working in Herman’s backyard workshop learning the ropes. In 2021-2022, the two received support through the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program. Because of Herman’s generosity and dedication towards ensuring his skills continue, Vandyke is prepared to launch a full-time instrument repair career. He is now building his own backyard shop in Bristol, and Herman will give him much of his workshop equipment, empowering Vandyke to continue his legacy of excellent repair. Born and raised in Buchanan County, Vandyke is also a talented singer-songwriter. His latest single, “Texas (Walking on Ashes)” was released earlier this year. Vandyke will be sharing his luthier work in the Virginia Folklife Area and performing in the Instrument Maker’s Jam on the Center for Cultural Vibrancy Virginia Folklife stage on Sunday. 

Lisa Ring

Instrument Making | Troutdale, VA

Lisa Ring
Pat Jarrett/Virginia Humanities

Lisa Ring was born and raised on her family’s farm in Grayson County, where she lives today. Ring remembers family visits always included music, her relatives on her mother’s side were nearly all musicians. Her grandfather and his brothers played fiddle, her great aunt played autoharp and her great-grandmother played the dulcimer. Ring’s mother did not learn to play, but she knew how deeply important music was to the family, going so far as to track down her father’s fiddle after learning he loaned it out when he fell too ill to play.  Ring remembers seeing that fiddle as a young girl in her mother’s dresser drawer. After encouraging her to learn piano and guitar, her mother gave Ring the family fiddle when she turned 18. Ring went on to connect with Hick Edmonds, a neighbor of her grandparents, who learned how to play fiddle from her grandfather. While she did not learn from her grandfather directly, his teaching made its way to Ring through Edmonds. 

Ring began working on instruments out of curiosity and the hunch she could do it. She was artistic and she had access to her father’s woodshop. Her friendship with legendary guitar builder Wayne Henderson led to an informal apprenticeship. She began making guitars—she’s made eleven so far—and doing repair work on the side. After taking a multi-year hiatus from music and guitar building, Ring received support from the Virginia Folklife Program in 2019-2020 to apprentice with Emily Spencer in clawhammer banjo. Spencer taught traditional string band at Grayson Highlands School at the time and Ring began doing the instrument repairs for the school, which helped her return to guitar building. Ring still repairs the school’s instruments pro-bono and she and Spencer continue a learning exchange today, with Ring teaching Spencer instrument repair. Ring will be in the Instrument Makers Workshop in the Virginia Folklife Area on Saturday and Sunday and playing in the Instrument Makers Jam on the Center for Cultural Vibrancy Virginia Folklife Stage on Sunday.

Mac Traynham

Banjo Making | Willis, VA

Photo by Pat Jarrett/Virginia Humanities

Mac Traynham of Floyd County became interested in handmade instruments in 1975 when he commissioned a friend to build him a Gibson RB-100 copy on which to play a three-finger style of bluegrass and other experimental music. He became even more interested after commissioning (the now legendary) guitar maker Wayne Henderson to build him a Martin D-28 style guitar in 1976. Being attracted to beautiful woods and a serious player of Southwest Virginia-style clawhammer banjo music, Traynham built his first banjo in 1978 using recycled birdseye maple flooring that had been made previously into a door. During the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, he continued to make banjos and was part of an instrument makers seminar at the 1981 National Folk Festival. Being interested in all aspects of instrument making and playing, he visited the workshops of many of the region’s renowned instrument makers, including Olen Gardner, Kyle Creed, Arthur Conner, Albert Hash, and Wayne Henderson, receiving advice and insight along the way. Over the years, Traynham has experimented with classical tone designs and is known for making beautiful banjos that have superior tone. Since the late 1970s, Traynham has built over 160 instruments for players all over the world—even as far as Tasmania.

He has also participated in the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program twice as a mentor artist and master musician. In 2009-10, he trained Robert Browder in clawhammer banjo and in 2021-22, Ashlee Watkins apprenticed with Traynham in old-time rhythm guitar. While Traynham is an accomplished banjo, guitar, and fiddle player, he is also an incredibly supportive musician towards his fellow players. If there’s an instrument missing in a jam, Trayhnam will fill in the gap, explaining: “Whatever it takes to make good music!” Traynham will be in Instrument Maker’s Workshop in the Virginia Folklife Area Saturday and Sunday and part of the Instrument Maker’s Jam on Sunday on the Center for Cultural Vibrancy and Virginia Folklife Stage.

Mark Cline

Fiberglass Sculptor | Natural Bridge, VA

Photo by Pat Jarrett/Virginia Humanities

Mark Cline began making sculptures just after graduating high school. A part-time job had him working at Red Mill Manufacturing in Lyndhurst, near Waynesboro, mixing material for small resin statues. It was there where the owner of the company, John Sewell, showed him how to cast sculptures and sent him home with a five-gallon bucket of resin. From that point on, Cline’s path to roadside attraction notoriety was clear.

From making small resin creatures, Cline developed into making larger-than-life fiberglass monsters and roadside attractions. Dinosaur Kingdom II in Natural Bridge is his crown jewel, an attraction featuring an Old West-style Main Street, a slime monster theater, an alternative history depicting dinosaurs battling Civil War soldiers in the woods, and an interactive Sasquatch shooting gallery with pre-filled water guns. Recently, while sitting on a bench in the dinosaur forest, Cline shared that it is the sheer diversity of his projects that keeps him engaged.

Aside from fiberglass dinosaurs and roadside attractions, Cline is known for his haunted tours in Lexington, repairing and refurbishing so-called muffler men (tall promotional male figures that began popping up in the early 1960s), and his annual April Fools’ Day public installations in and around his Natural Bridge studio. His sculptures are always captivating and full of mirth, much like the man himself.

Michael Brewer

Guitar Making | Marion, VA

Michael Brewer was raised in Grayson County, Virginia. At eleven years old, he started taking music lessons from Jim Lloyd of Rural Retreat. Lloyd also fostered Brewer’s interest in instrument making and repair, giving him broken instruments to take home to work on. When Michael was thirteen, his father took him to see Gerald Anderson at his workshop in Volney, Virginia. After visiting and talking with Anderson, Brewer knew that he wanted to pursue instrument-making. Shortly thereafter, his parents bought him his first guitar-building kit and he was hooked.

Brewer began teaching music in 2015 at the Wayne C Henderson School of Appalachian Arts in Marion. While at the Henderson, he started to sit in on guitar building classes, and began to build his first guitar in 2016. However, it was not until 2020 that Brewer completed the instrument as the first recipient of the Henderson’s Gerald Anderson Scholarship (established following Anderson’s untimely death in 2019). Brewer has completed eight guitars so far, with several more in progress. He is proud to incorporate as much local wood into his guitars as he can, and is currently building a guitar for his son using cherry wood from his father’s land in Grayson County. Brewer will be in the Instrument Makers Workshop in the Virginia Folklife Area on Saturday and Sunday.

Richard Maxham

Violin Making | Alexandria, VA

Richard Maxham has spent his life with the violin. The fifth generation in his family to make or play the instrument, he began playing at the age of three and performed extensively as a soloist, chamber musician, and orchestral violinist. As he grew up, he also watched his grandfather make, repair, and adjust violins. While at St. John’s College in Annapolis, he cultivated an interest in violin repair and making. After inheriting his grandfather’s tools, wood, patterns, and violin book library, he began the lifelong process of studying all aspects of the violin world. He attended the University of New Hampshire’s Violin Craftsmanship Institute summer workshops for repair, restoration, and varnishing as well as the Violin Society of America’s violin restoration, acoustics, and bow restoration summer workshops at Oberlin College. 

After graduating from college, he apprenticed with Daniel Smith of Lynchburg, Virginia, and learned to make violins. Smith taught him a foundational understanding of the craft, and Maxham continued to work in the repair workshops of Potter Violins, Violin House of Weaver (which he still supports), and Day Violins. In 2019, he established his own business, Maxham Violins, to focus on violin repair and restoration and bow rehairing. To date, he has worked with players of all abilities and styles, including members of the Washington National Opera House orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Marine, Army, and Air Force Strings, and many local orchestras in the Washington, DC area. Maxham and Smith have maintained a friendship and knowledge exchange over the years, and the Virginia Folklife Program is supporting Maxham in apprenticing with Daniel Smith in 2022-2023. During their time together this coming year, Maxham hopes to focus on his violin making and restoration practice. Maxham will be in the Instrument Makers Workshop in the Virginia Folklife Area on Saturday and Sunday and playing in the Instrument Makers Jam on the Center for Cultural Vibrancy Virginia Folklife Stage on Sunday.

Sophia Burnett

Instrument Making | Boone, NC

Photo by Pat Jarrett

Sophia Burnett of Boone, North Carolina has been deeply involved with Appalachian culture in and around her home and southwest Virginia since she was a child. She started playing fiddle at age five and was a member of The Tater Hill Mashers band as a student in the Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) program. She said it’s her love of her family’s Scotch-Irish heritage that keeps her playing old-time and bluegrass music. She performs with her sisters as The Burnett Sisters Band.

In 2021-2022, with support from the Virginia Folklife Program, Burnett apprenticed under luthier Chris Testerman of Independence, Virginia to learn the trade. She recently finished her first fiddle and is working on completing several other instruments. Her fiddle, with its back adorned with the silhouette of a horse and local flora, is inspired by the late luthier Albert Hash, whose daughter trained Testerman in the craft. Burnett’s keen sense of her ancestry and the legacy of mountain culture drives her to keep learning. “To be able to put a fiddle together and then to play it, and maybe showing your kid what you built…it’s just incredible,” said Burnett. “And to be able to show our kids, and those kids show their kids, and it just keeps on going.” Burnett will be in the Instrument Makers Workshop in the Virginia Folklife Area on Saturday and Sunday and playing in the Instrument Makers Jam on the Center for Cultural Vibrancy Virginia Folklife Stage on Sunday. 

Spencer Strickland

Instrument Making | Lambsburg, VA

Photo courtesy Spencer Strickland

Spencer Strickland grew up in southwestern Virginia in a family steeped in music. His mother sang and his father played guitar in a family gospel band that performed at churches and community events in the region. At age ten, Strickland began taking mandolin lessons with local musician and sound engineer Wesley Easter. Since then, Strickland has gone on to win prestigious awards for his playing, including first place in the 2004 and 2008 mandolin competitions at the Galax Old Fiddler’s Convention. In 2004, Strickland apprenticed with the late guitar and mandolin builder Gerald Anderson through the Virginia Folklife Program. Anderson had trained with legendary guitar and mandolin builder Wayne Henderson for three decades, and Strickland developed excellent luthier skills. Their apprenticeship led to a business partnership: Anderson & Strickland String Instruments. In 2008, the Virginia Folklife Program produced Been All Around the World, an album by Anderson (who plays guitar) and Strickland for the Crooked Road series. Anderson and Strickland performed as a duo, Anderson-Strickland, and recorded multiple projects. Most notably, they played the theme song for the PBS television series “Song of the Mountains”. The two friends performed together regularly until the untimely passing of Anderson in 2019.

Today, Strickland continues to build instruments in his hometown of Lambsburg under the name Strickland String Instruments. He has built over 85 guitars, 26 mandolins, and assisted Gerald Anderson in the making of over 100 instruments.  Strickland plays mandolin and rhythm guitar for The Church Sisters and also teaches instrument building at the Wayne C Henderson School of Appalachian Arts in Marion. Strickland will be in the Instrument Makers Workshop in the Virginia Folklife Area on Saturday and Sunday and playing in the Instrument Makers Jam on the Center for Cultural Vibrancy Virginia Folklife Stage on Sunday.

Sushmita Mazumdar

Storybook Artist | Arlington, VA

Sushmita Mazumdar
Pat Jarrett/Virginia Humanities

Sushmita Mazumdar of Arlington works across stories, book arts, and mixed media to explore her memories of home, heritage, and migration from India. She mixes present-day places which inspire her work, including community members who collaborate, discuss, and respond to inform her creations. After a fifteen-year career in the advertising industry, Mazumdar taught herself to be a writer, writing stories about her childhood to show her American children how different yet wonderful each of our lives can be. As she puts it, “We think we have so much to teach others. But others, including our children, come into our lives with so much to teach us!”

A self-taught book artist, Mazumdar made the stories into unique, handmade books and in 2007 launched Handmade Storybooks, encouraging intergenerational story-sharing through fun and simple bookmaking. In 2010, she participated in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s Asian Pacific American program “Local Lives Global Ties”. In 2013 she opened Studio Pause, a community space for art and stories, in the Gates of Ballston housing community in Arlington. During COVID-19, she worked collaboratively to produce We PAUSED! A Handmade Book by Studio PAUSE for Gates of Ballston, a collective community response to the first year of the pandemic.  We PAUSED! Unbound, a year-long exhibit created as a follow up to the book project, is on view at Arlington Arts. Mazumdar will be leading an interactive activity in the Virginia Folklife Area during Saturday and Sunday. 

Bomba Showcase: Tata Cepeda and Semilla Cultural

Puerto Rican bomba | Fredericksburg, Va and San Juan, Puerto Rico

Courtest Semilla Cultural

This one-time performance unites one of Puerto Rico’s finest bomba dancers with the Fredericksburg non-profit Semilla Cultural, led by Isha M Renta Lopez. 

Enslaved West Africans on Puerto Rico’s sugar plantations created the foundation of bomba in the 1600s, and the art form continues to develop, transform, and connect the island to its African heritage today. Bomba is defined by its percussion, including barriles de bomba—drums originally made from rum barrels, maracas, and the cuás (a pair of wood sticks).

Tata Cepeda (born Margarita Sánchez Cepeda) is widely known and respected in Puerto Rico as “La Mariposa de la Bomba” (the Butterfly of Bomba) and today is considered one of the most important and influential “bomberas” of our time. She was raised by Doña Caridad Brenes Caballero and Don Rafael Cepeda Atíles in the Santurce barrio of San Juan. Her grandfather is considered a patriarch of bomba and plena, and she began dancing when she was nine years old in the Familia Cepeda group. In 2001, Cepeda founded the Doña Caridad Brenes de Cepeda School of Bomba and Plena, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting music and dance as representative elements of the cultural richness of Puerto Rico. Cepeda named the school for her grandmother as an expression of her deep love and gratitude and in tribute to her legendary dancing. 

Semilla Cultural is a non-profit organization based in Fredericksburg that works to develop and grow a community that embraces Puerto Rican culture and arts throughout Washington DC, Maryland, and Virginia. This volunteer-run organization was founded in 2014 by Isha M Renta Lopez, who is apprenticing with Cepeda in bomba dance with support from the Virginia Folklife Program. Through teaching and performing bomba and plena, Semilla Cultural seeks to raise cultural awareness and historical understanding. This special performance at the Richmond Folk Festival is part of their apprenticeship, and while Cepeda is in Virginia, she is collaborating with Semilla Cultural on a variety of community events.